Finding Common Ground: An Atheist Interviews a Pagan

Finding Common Ground: An Atheist Interviews a Pagan October 13, 2015

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For the Patheos “Share what we share” event, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Beckett who writes for the Patheos Pagan channel with his blog Under the Ancient Oaks. John also interviewed me on his blog as we tried to understand each other’s different perspectives on religion and also find common ground. I learned a lot about Paganism from John and I was particularly encouraged by how much common ground we have in fighting for social justice. Despite our differences in religiosity, Pagans and atheists have plenty of opportunities to work together! The world has no shortage of problems, so it would be silly to lose potential friends and allies over religion when you still share many commonalities. 


Matthew: How would you describe your religious beliefs?

John Beckett
John Beckett

John: In terms of belief, I’m a polytheist who recognizes and honors many Gods.  Some say the Gods are the personification of ideals, principles, and natural forces.  Some say They’re aspects or faces of one God.  Some say They’re archetypes or metaphors.  In my interactions with the Gods – through prayer, meditation, and ecstatic communion – I have experienced Them as real, distinct, individual beings, so that’s how I think of Them and talk about Them… even though I know I can never be sure I’m right.

In terms of practice, I’m a Druid.  While modern Druids take our name and inspiration from the ancient Druids, our continuous heritage actually goes back about 300 years. The Druid Revival can be documented from 1792, and there is good evidence some people were calling themselves Druids for a hundred years before that.  As a Druid, I’m inspired by the beliefs, practices, and stories of my Celtic ancestors, and I have a strong connection to Nature.  Druidry’s emphasis on Nature is both spiritual and practical, and many Druids are strong environmentalists.

In terms of identity, I’m a Pagan.  The Pagan community is extremely broad and decentralized, and there is a huge debate as to whether the term is meaningful.  But our mainstream culture is still dominated by Christianity, so it’s helpful to have an umbrella term that makes it easier for seekers to find who and what they’re looking for, and to bring us together for events and projects that are too big for any one of our relatively small groups to handle.

In terms of local activity, I’m a Unitarian Universalist.  The UU church is a non-creedal movement that includes Christians, Buddhists, Pagans, atheists, and a lot of people who are hard to classify and damn proud of it.  We work together where we have common interests and support each other where we differ.

Where are some areas where you have found common ground with people of other faiths?

Almost any issue affecting our world can be an area of common ground.  There are many motivations for doing the right thing.  I don’t care if you believe the Earth is the body of a Goddess, or that it was made by God, or if it’s just the only planet we’ve got – I care that you treat the Earth with respect and with consideration for future generations.  Climate change, species loss, and ecosystem destruction are important issues for many Pagans, but these are not Pagan issues.  Economic and social justice, gender and orientation equality, and religious freedom for all are areas where Pagans often find ourselves working alongside people of other religions.

We need not limit our allies over concerns of ideological purity.  I’ll happily work with a Catholic to end the death penalty, then turn around the next day and oppose that same Catholic on reproductive rights.

What are some challenges that you have experienced while trying to find common ground with people of other faiths?

I’ve found that most people who come to interfaith events and non-religious community projects generally expect to encounter people of other religions and they’re happy to have the support.  The same is true in many workplaces: in my office there are Christians, Jews, Hindus, Muslims, atheists, and at least one Pagan.  We focus on why we’re there and we don’t let our religious and cultural differences get in the way.

I occasionally run into people who, if the conversation turns to religion, feel the need to try and convert everyone else to their beliefs (or lack thereof).  Depending on how persistent they are, that can range from a minor annoyance to a major distraction.

I also run into people with a very narrow idea of what religion is, whose idea of interfaith is a bunch of different Protestants, one Catholic, and one Jew.  This has generated some unpleasant encounters.  People who nod in agreement with my reverence for Nature and smile politely with my esoteric practices get defensive and even angry with my worship of many Gods.  It challenges their foundational assumptions about The Way Things Are – some people take those challenges as a personal attack.

What is one stereotype you would like to break regarding your religious group?

I’d like to break the stereotype of Pagans as flaky and anachronistic. We look to the past because we see something that modern society has lost: our connections with Nature, with our Gods, and with other people.  We’re inspired by our ancient ancestors who led happy and honorable lives without the Christian religion.  If we don’t always fit into the mainstream world, perhaps that’s because the mainstream world is unhealthy and unsustainable – we’re looking for something different. And some of us have found it.

What is one thing you would like people to know about your religion?

What you do is more important than what you believe.  The idea that religion is about belief is a modern, Western, Protestant idea that has proved decidedly unhelpful.  For most of history in most of the world, religion has been about who you are, whose you are, and what you do.

If you come to one of our rituals and you pour a libation to Brighid, no one will ask if you believe Brighid is a Goddess, or if you believe She’s an aspect of some undefinable divinity, or if you simply find that honoring Brighid helps you bring Her virtues of inspiration and transformation into your life.

Judge your beliefs not by how closely they match the current consensus, but by how they help you live a good life.  If your beliefs (or lack of beliefs) help you deal with the Big Questions of Life in a positive way, and if they inspire you to treat your fellow humans and other creatures with dignity and respect, everything else is a minor issue.

 


Again, I was definitely encouraged by the commonalities John and I shared regarding social justice and in the separation of church and state. I thought his point about ideological purity was particularly important. We are all not going to agree on everything, but when we have opportunities to work together, we should. Also, I found it interesting how at John’s rituals people are more concerned about what you do rather than what you believe. Instead of worrying if his fellow Pagans “believe enough” in a certain God, they simply want them to live a good life and be kind to each other. I think that is a concept that people of all faiths should be able to agree on!

 

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